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Meditation in the Workplace - is it Effective?


Ever-expanding email inboxes, learning to juggle business social media accounts with our routine workload and the stress of possible job relocation over Brexit – it’s enough to drive any right-thinking employee crazy. And which is why, more and more companies these days are considering office ‘meditation zones’ to help their stressed-out employees relax.

It’s not a bad idea – and it’s hardly new, anyhow. Small to medium-sized firms are merely following in the steps of global giants such as Google, Apple and Yahoo. And it’s not only trendy IT companies that have embraced this ‘new’ish’ HR strategy (although it’s mainly been introduced by meditation-loving CEOs). No, sports brand Nike, retail brand Proctor & Gamble and even staid old Deutsche Bank are also on board with the modern mindfulness and meditation concept.

Meditation is good for the bottom line
 
Introducing meditation or ‘chill out’ spaces in the workplace shows employees the company cares about them. And in doing so, it’s also caring for the company’s shareholders because, it’s been shown time and time again that allowing employees to de-stress, leads to improved workforce morale and productivity (the latter by allowing the individual to ‘focus’ more on work). Profits are boosted as a result. 
 
Michael Rennie, Partner of US management and consulting firm McKinsey & Co said: “What’s good for the spirit is good for the bottom line.” And he should know – Like famous Apple founder Steve Jobs he’s been meditating for years. To back up his claims Rennie points to a meditation programme his company developed for an Australian client and which went on to save the Antipodean firm more than $20 million.
 
Other benefits to companies by creating a meditation space
 
One major benefit in reducing employee stress is to make individuals less resistant to illness overall. An Ohio State University study in 2009 showed that when company employees set aside a short period of time every day to meditate there were fewer sick days and more work done.
 
Another bonus companies can reap by installing a meditation or ‘quiet space’ is to have a wider pool from which to attract high-calibre employees. That’s because offering a prayer/meditation room will prove attractive to certain nationalities, especially those who like to pray daily. It shows such an individual that the company not only respects their beliefs, but cares about their welfare. This means he or she is more likely to stay with the firm.
 

A meditation room at Washington DC company’s WeWork offices
 
How does a meditation space work?
 
Even just 15 minutes in a quiet space can be enough to allow an employee to relax and de-stress following a stressful phone call or tense encounter with a colleague. It does this by offering them the ‘head space’ to think through a considered response, for instance. Meditation spaces are also excellent for allowing employees to focus prior to a presentation with colleagues or clients.
 
Apple’s Steve Jobs famously allowed 30 minutes every day for staff to meditate – because he found the practice so beneficial himself. CEO of Boston-based Hollister Staffing, Kip Hollister goes one better by hosting meditation classes for staff. The licensed instructor had a customised meditation room installed at work. There she directs her staff to ‘clear their heads,’ join in with mantras and set intentions. The classes aren’t compulsory but Hollister says she notices that those employees who do attend are more ‘present and productive.’
 
CEO Shawn Riegsecker  of Centro LLC, a Chicago-based advertising-software company recently insisted on a “pause” at 2:45 pm each day to allow his employees to sit quiet, meditate or ‘simply close their eyes and shut down their brains’ for a few minutes. Right now he is in the process of installing a meditation room.
 
 
 
 

Headspace – the company who designed the famous mindfulness app of the same name, predictably made their new LA office very meditation friendly. Not only did they insist on a Group Meditation Room but also a Silent Room for solo meditation and several convenient ‘Meditation Pods’

Meditation pods at Headspace’s new offices

Stress – ‘the epidemic of the 21st century’
 
One of the first companies to set up a meditation room at work – back in 1997 - was Acacia Life Insurance. Health services manager Mary Alice Mezenwerth insisted it was necessary after showing her bosses how stress could cause such physical symptoms as high blood pressure, increased likelihood of developing allergies and headaches.
 
Her prescient words came back to haunt us all when last year the World Health Organisation dubbed stress the ‘new health epidemic of the 21st century.’ According to UK government figures from April 2015 to 2016 stress accounted for 45 per cent of sick days. At the same time, the Confederation of British Industry insists stress-related absences costs domestic industry around £17bn annually.
 
What should a meditation/chill-out space look and feel like?
 
Without a doubt the walls of a ‘quiet space’ should be a light neutral shade so as not to distract focus. The room should be comfortable with large floor cushions or soft seating and perhaps one or two pot plants.
 
Any light should be natural (which is best for health) or soft (certainly, glaring fluorescent lighting is out). Some practitioners recommend using a room which receives the sun in the early morning so that meditation can take place prior to work for best results.
 
It practically goes without saying that the meditation room should be removed as far as possible from the busy main office area.
 
Noise is important too – silence is good but some people enjoy background soft percussion or nature sounds. There are also plenty of meditation apps available to download these days (Headspace being by far the most popular).
 
Some companies, who have no immediate room for a meditation zone are utilising the conference room when available as a ‘pop up’ ie temporary chill out space. 
 
New idea in meditation/mindfulness office design
 
Italian designer Cristiana Cutrona took workplace mindfulness to a whole new level when he unveiled his Illuminated Pond at Salone del Mobile this year. The glowing circle on the floor has moving digital images and is designed as a contemplative and meditative space:
 

Cristiana Cutrona’s meditative illuminated pond
 
Further studies on the benefits of meditation for employees
 
Interestingly a Harvard University study by psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that thinking about the past and future as well as the present, was the default mode of humans – to the extent we spend around 47 per cent of our waking hours ‘mind-wandering.’ Other animals tend to be more present, the scientists found.
 
When we meditate we attempt to stop our brains wandering and concentrate on just one thing. In this way we are training our brains to focus better.
 
Another Harvard study, conducted in 2011, found that an eight week meditation course reduced gray-matter density in the amygdale region in the brain of participants (this is where anxiety, stress etc happens). At the same time gray-matter density increased in the hippocampus (where learning, self-awareness and compassion develop). In other words, the participants became nicer and cleverer after they meditated. Now which boss wouldn’t want to pounce on that piece of information?